“Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, Matthew Syed

Bounce, Matthew Syed
9 MINUTE READ

Bounce, Matthew Syed

“Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, Matthew Syed
Also available as: “Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success”
Print length: 410 pages. Buy on Amazon.

Perfect for you if:

  • You believe “I am not a Language/Athletic/Math/etc… person”.
  • You, or someone you know, wants to become the best, or even just better at anything.
  • You’re fascinated by the psychology of learning; be you learner, teacher or parent.

“Bounce” is a book for anyone who believes they are “not a Language / Athletic / Math / etc… person” and never will be.

Matthew Syed, a top ranked table tennis champion and journalist, has two clear messages:

  1. There is no such thing as “Natural Born Talent”; and
  2. Becoming an expert at anything is primarily a question of:
    • Mindset;
    • Motive;
    • Practice; and
    • Opportunity.

To be clear, Syed doesn’t discount the role of genetics entirely. Instead, he argues that:

  1. It is simply not as important as we often believe; and
  2. This slight shift in perspective makes all the difference.

Syed’s athletic career adds depth and colour to his conclusions. His evidence base is full of cutting edge research, interviews, and historical fact. His suggestions are immediate and practical.

In short, if you like what you read in this crunch:

  • Whether learner, expert or teacher;
  • Be you academic, athlete or professional;
  • Whatever your age, size, gender or nationality;

then “Bounce” is be a compulsory addition to your already bursting bookshelf.

Its insights will surprise, entertain and inform you. They may even change your life.

Overview

  • In learning, people tend to adopt either a “Fixed” or “Growth” mindset.
  • The “Growth Mindset” more accurately reflects what we know about learning today.
  • And yet we still use the comfortable “Myth of Talent” to make sense of the world around us.
  • Even though it is based on partial and inaccurate information.
  • And grossly distorted by our cognitive biases.
  • This is important because our expectations have great consequences for ourselves and those around us.
  • In fact, there are four main ingredients to learning:
    • Mindset: a “Growth Mindset” gives us a love of learning and a resilience to failure.
    • Motive: an “Internal Motive”, once sparked, sets intention and sustains drive and motivation.
    • Practice: “Purposeful Practice” with enough quantity, quality and feedback, is the bedrock of ability.
    • Opportunity: “Good Luck” in Where, When, What, Who and How separates the top 10% from the top 10.
  • Managing “Belief” is a final “X Factor” in balancing conflicting demands of “Learning” and “Performance”.
  • In conclusion: Your most basic abilities can be developed to extraordinary levels through dedication and hard work.
  • Do not let the “Myth of Talent” hold you and the people around you back.

Detail

In learning, people tend to adopt either a “Fixed” or “Growth” mindset.

  • In a Fixed Mindset:
    • People believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.
    • They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.
    • They believe that talent alone – without effort – creates success.
  • In a Growth Mindset:
    • People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
    • They understand that brains and talent are just the starting point.
    • This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
  • It’s interesting to note that this mindset can and does change:

The “Growth Mindset” more accurately reflects what we know about learning today.

  • Learning relies on chunking and habit formation; a basic physiological process.
    This is true in all individuals and across all skills and learning types (e.g., perceptual, cognitive and motor)
  • Ability/intelligence is actually highly domain specific.
    Chess masters are good at chess but novices at general memorisation tasks.
    Reaction times in one sport (e.g., table tennis) do not generalise to other sports (e.g., tennis).
  • The main differentiating factor in performance is practice.
    I.e., the 10 year / 10 thousand hour rule.

And yet we often use the comfortable “Myth of Talent” to make sense of the world.

  • e.g., Experts and “Child Prodigies”
    Child Prodigies “Do not have unusual genes, they have unusual upbringings.”
    e.g., Polgár Sisters, Mozart, Williams Sisters, Tiger Woods, Bobby Fischer, David Beckham  etc…
  • e.g., “Black Athletes”
    There is no evidence for meaningful genetic differences at a racial level.
    In fact >90% of genetic variation occurs between individuals/small populations.
    Instead mostly a combo of environmental, social, political and momentum factors.

Even though the “Myth of Talent” is based on partial, inaccurate information due to e.g.,:

  • Iceberg Illusion.
    We can only see/consciously understand a fraction of the work it took to become an expert.
    We fail to spot the accumulated impact of many small factors or one small factor over time.
    See “Combinatorial Explosion” below.
  • Expert Amnesia.
    The subconscious nature of expertise means we can only describe and report a fraction of it.
    See “Combinatorial Explosion” below.
  • Expert Delusion
    Sometimes to boost performance (e.g., in deliberately eliminating doubt to improve performance)
    Sometimes to mislead (e.g., lying about performance and effort to others)
    Sometimes unintentionally (see Expert Amnesia)
  • Linear vs. System Dynamics.
    We assume linear relationships where complex systems and feedback mechanisms are at play.
    We miss the compounding impact of many small factors or one small factor over a long time.

And grossly distorted by our cognitive biases:

  • Combinatorial Explosion
    We are terrible at visualising exponential functions.
    E.g., How thick is a piece of paper after 103 folds? 93 billion light years (as thick as the Universe). 
  • Confirmation Bias
    We give more weight to information that confirms existing stories.
    This makes it hard to shake pre-existing biases.
  • Attribution Error
    We misattribute or find causation where there is only correlation.
    We mistake the direction of causation (which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies)
  • Availability Bias
    We are better at remembering surprising or extreme examples.
    We tend to confuse how easily memorable something is with how likely it is.
    As a result, we weight extreme examples over “normal” ones in our mental models.
  • Halo Effect
    We extrapolate results from small to large populations without regard to sample size.
    We extrapolate performance between one or many domains (e.g., chess >> general memory).

This is important because our expectations have great consequences for ourselves and those around us.

  • Mindset: “Natural talent” based praise induces a fixed mindset in others. “Effort” based praise induces a growth mindset.
  • Motive: The “Myth of Talent” denies us/others the opportunity for self-improvement: “Why bother if I have no ‘natural gift’?”
  • Practice: In a “Fixed Mindset” we seek confirmation of our innate gift through easy tasks and risk avoidance. So we do not learn.
  • Opportunity: Our biases create self-fulfilling prophecies through both positive and negative discrimination (e.g., black athletes).

In fact, there are four main ingredients to learning:

Mindset:
A “Growth Mindset” gives us a love of learning and a resilience to failure.

  • In a Fixed Mindset:
    • People believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits.
    • They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.
    • They believe that talent alone – without effort – creates success.
  • In a Growth Mindset:
    • People believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.
    • They understand that brains and talent are just the starting point.
    • This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.

Motive:
An “Internal Motive”, once sparked, sets intention and sustains drive and motivation.

  • Motive must be independent and internal: “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”
  • Anything can spark it but “Motivation by Association” (e.g., through a shared local or national identity) is a powerful example.
  • Once sparked, motive must be “sustained” either internally or by virtue of its own momentum (see Learned Industriousness).

Practice:
“Purposeful Practice” with enough quantity, quality and feedback, is the bedrock of ability.

  • Quantity: “10 year / thousand hour rule”. Consistently proven as biggest single differentiator of ability across all domains.
  • Quality: Practice must be constantly challenging. If something feels easy or subconscious, it is not improving (e.g., driving to work).
  • Feedback: “If you don’t know what you are doing wrong, you can never know what you are doing right”.
    • Must be timely (quick to follow the action), objective and attributable (See “Kaizen“).
    • Try to look for or design feedback loops in your practice (e.g., by standardising procedure).

Opportunity:
“Good Luck” in Where, When, What, Who and How separates the top 10% from the top 10.

  • Where: In the right place. Determines Who and How. E.g., “Reading” for UK Table Tennis; Eldoret for distance running.
  • When: At the right time. Timing, at the start of an up-cycle, is everything. E.g., Hockey players born early in season cut off. Reading in the early 80s for Table Tennis.
  • What: Genetics, injury. Some genetic factors make a difference sometimes. Injury/burnout can unravel even the most promising career.
  • Who: With the right people. Ourselves, peers, parents, teachers, mentors, coaches, judges – all influence the course of our journey.
  • How: And the right facilities. Tightly linked with Where and When. E.g., It’s hard to be a tennis champion with no tennis court.

Managing “Belief” is a final “X Factor” in balancing conflicting demands of “Learning” and “Performance”.  

  • Our beliefs have a profound and physical impact on our experience and actions (see the Placebo Effect).
  • And it turns out it doesn’t matter what they are (e.g., divine, scientific) so long as our beliefs are sincere.
  • But “Learning” and “Performance” place conflicting demands on belief:
    • Learning: Openness to criticism, understanding of our own flaws.
    • Performance: Unwavering self-confidence and belief.
  • And believing the wrong thing at the wrong time can greatly disrupt both.
  • So, the ability to believe in and appropriately manage two conflicting realities is critical to optimising growth.

In conclusion: Your most basic abilities can be developed to extraordinary levels through dedication and hard work. 

  • Our ability to improve our intelligence and abilities is more in control than we ever imagined.
  • Luck and genetics do play a role but this is much less significant than we assume.

Don’t let the “Myth of Talent” hold you and the people around you back.

  • Get out there and take more responsibility for your own destiny!
  • Don’t let a few weeks of half hearted effort at some skill confirm your false beliefs.
  • Purposeful practice is not easy, it is hard, but it is also mostly available to everyone.
  • Understanding this will not only change you, it will also change those around you.

Related Reading

“Outliers: The Story of Success”, Malcolm Gladwell: Heavily referenced by Syed and for good reason. Gladwell’s pursuit of the truth is relentless. His book deeply debunks “The Myth of Talent”, including many deep and widely held biases, across a wide range of domains. Incidentaly, his new podcast “Revisionist History” is also fascinating.

“Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential”, Carol Dweck: Another primary source for Syed. Dweck’s decades of experiments and insights into the psychology of learning have deeply influenced today’s thinking on the topic. The idea and evidence behind “Growth” and “Fixed” mindsets began and come from here. A fascinating read.

“The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance”, Joshua Waitzkin: Waitzkin’s book tells the story of his rise to both International Master at Chess and a World Champion in Taichi Push Hands. His first hand insights of mastering not one but two domains to a World Class level make for fascinating reading. A wonderful and insightful book.

“Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World”, Cal Newport: In this fascinating book, Cal Newport guides us into the requirements, benefits and importance of “Deep Work”. His concept overlaps almost perfectly with the idea of “Purposeful Practice”. For anyone looking for more practical tips on single minded progress, this is a must read. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg: If you’re looking for more on the power of the subconscious then try this book for size. An amazing insight into the importance of habit in every aspect of learning. Also full of practical tips. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

“A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science”, Barbara Oakley: My final reading suggestion is another fascinating journey into the physiology and psychology of learning. Barbara’s book is as deeply practical as it is informative. If you’re looking for more on Chunking, Discipline and Creativity then look no further. See the WWH Book Crunch here.

Arthur
Arthur is a learning freak, traveller, and writer who loves to help curious, busy people digest chewy topics fast. One of his passions is language learning. Send yourself his free Ultimate Language Learning Guide to save thousands of dollars and hours on your journey to fluency.

Leave a Reply

2 Comments on "“Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice”, Matthew Syed"

Notify of
avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Guest

Awesome post! I’m from Brazil and also a fanatic of learning techniques! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and contributing to the making of a better world!
Cheers!

wpDiscuz